U.S. government

Photo Credit: Jessica Lin | Daily Texan Staff

We live in a time when openness and secrecy have both increased. With social media and other Internet communications, it is easier than ever to procure information about topics from foreign affairs and domestic policy to business transactions and personal relationships. Anyone with an iPhone and a USB flash drive can easily copy a document or record an event and then circulate it instantaneously to the world.

This is the story of Wikileaks, which posted thousands of formerly secret U.S. government documents, and Twitter-savvy activists in China, Russia and the Middle East who use photos of their repressed public demonstrations to inspire international hopes for political change. Social media has facilitated the flow of formerly secret information; they have made it harder for governments and other powerful groups to control what we see.

          

The paradox of greater information access

 

In this information-rich environment, secrecy about decision-making has, paradoxically, increased. That is because people are more careful than ever to avoid documenting their decisions. The risks of revelation on the Internet are too great; the fears of intentional manipulation by adversaries are too real.

Presidents, for example, used to record their conversations and maintain personal diaries. Their assistants wrote long memoranda explaining how they made their most important decisions. Now, they generally avoid these exercises. Business leaders had secretaries who transcribed their meetings and telephone conversations. They also wrote revealing letters to partners and confidants. Now they prefer to keep their notes to a minimum.

Email has become the most ubiquitous form of daily communication, but anyone with any sense carefully sanitizes their comments before hitting the send button. The risk of the mass-circulated email reduces the candor of the writer and the recipients. More open communications are more cautious communications. The opinions that count are self-censored.

           

How can we preserve forthrightness in official communications?

 

These circumstances pose a series of challenges. How do we manage the surplus of information and the scarcity of decision-making detail? How do we protect privacy and confidentiality where they are necessary while also maintaining access and accountability? How do we encourage our leaders to lead, but keep our citizens and their representatives appropriately informed?

The recent revelations about U.S. drone strikes near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that accidentally killed an American and an Italian hostage raise serious concerns. The public, members of Congress and U.S. legal authorities are ill-informed about what is tantamount to a government policy of targeted assassinations, directed by the president through the CIA and the Pentagon. How justified and accurate are the targets? What are the consequences? Who explores alternatives?

At the same time, when detailed information is released, as it was last week, news coverage obsesses over the mistakes and embarrassments rather than the broader accomplishments of the program, designed to kill terrorists and destroy their training grounds. Based on the accumulated evidence so far, we have reason to believe that the drone strikes ordered by President Barack Obama have reduced the capabilities of many terrorist groups with limited — although not insignificant — civilian damage.

           

Why it matters to policy-making

 

Here we reach the heart of the issue. Effective policy-making in a democracy requires a difficult balance between informing the public and protecting confidential information. The problem is that we have only just begun to think about how that balance has evolved in our new media and threat landscape.

Too often, as in the case of the U.S. drone strikes, information access is uneven, inconsistent and therefore very difficult to evaluate. Observers can highlight heroic successes and monumental screw-ups, but an informed public evaluation of whether the policy is making us safer and protecting our international interests is impossible. We need precisely that public evaluation (and informed debate) if we are going to make intelligent choices as a society.

Democracy requires openness and secrecy, but their relationship should not be haphazard, as it is today. As with most policy dilemmas, historical experience offers some useful guidelines. There is a long American tradition of avoiding public revelation of details that jeopardize military and other vital operations in real time. As early as the 19th century, American newspapers refrained from publishing plans for troop movements, weapons deployments and the names of vulnerable national representatives operating in hostile territories. Information that exposes legally sanctioned American missions and personnel to grave harm deserves protection.

Alongside this restraint, there is an equally strong tradition of the U.S. government working to make its decision processes and its policy records as transparent as possible. No other country did more to explain itself and open its archives in the last two centuries than the United States.

           

Ultimately, the public has a right to know

 

The scope of government materials available to anyone online and in government repositories, including the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library on our campus, is unparalleled. The public has a right to know, and government officials (including those working in the intelligence agencies) have a constitutional obligation to do everything possible to inform the public, short of the most necessary restraints on information justified only as described above.

Panicked by new media and new threats, our leaders at all levels of society have strayed from the wisdom of our history. As a university, we should model and promote a return to our democratic roots: Protect the privacy and safety of the individual, but demand public transparency and accountability for how decisions are made.

Transparency and accountability are, in fact, our comparative advantage. They expose flawed assumptions and they help to build consensus for thoughtful actions. They provide a sound basis for managing secrecy better in a more open society.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and in the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.

Civil Rights Summit

Photo Credit: Shweta Gulati | Daily Texan Staff

Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and San Antonio mayor Julian Castro both said they felt optimistic that immigration laws would be passed in 2014, and agreed the U.S. government must do more to address the issue of immigrants who overstay their visa.

Castro said Congress must define border security more clearly before passing a law for immigration reform. Also, the U.S. hasn’t adequately addressed who have overstayed their visa, Castro said.

“We haven’t done much about people who overstayed their visa and ensuring that we have a way to track who comes in and then whether they leave in a more effective and efficient way is an important part of this,” Castro said.  

Barbour said he thinks U.S. citizens are willing to spend money on a secure border, and he thinks the Senate bill focuses on this. Barbour said the U.S. shouldn’t deport employed immigrants because it wouldn’t be economically practical.

“Three, four, five million of these people who have had the same jobs for years, for decades, about the stupidest thing we could do economically is make them leave,” Barbour said. “We don’t have anybody to replace them with. The impracticality of sending everybody home should be obvious to everybody.”

According to Barbour, between four and five million immigrants - out of 11 million - could account for those who do not leave the U.S. once their visas expire. Barbour said this created a problem while passing laws through Congress because Americans do not want people to be rewarded for breaking the law.

“The two big issues and the underlying issue [are] that you have to deal with is you’re not rewarding people for breaking the law, and I think that can be done in a way that’s very appropriate and right,” Barbour said.

Near the end of the discussion, a woman in the audience yelled at Castro, asking him to stand up for "dreamers," referring to the DREAM Act, which would allow current, former and future undocumented high-school graduates and GED recipients to obtain citizenship through either college or the armed services.

"Mayor Castro, I am a dreamer... Our families are under attack... We need you to act now," the woman said.

Castro said the one of the most prominent issues was how border security is defined. Since 2001, the U.S. has increased the number of agents along the 110-kilometer Mexican-U.S. border by 117 percent, mediator Brian Sweany said.

In a press conference after the panel, Castro said there is always room for improvement in methods of securing the border, and he hopes to promote a more robust and active legal system.

“There’s no question that there’s been a frustration among many dreamers,” Castro said.

Although Castro and Barbour said they were optimistic about laws being passed for immigration reform, sociology professor Nestor Rodriguez said he did not see changes happening in the near future.

“I think it’s unlikely at this point,” Rodriguez said. “This requires more discussion, how long this will take — I don’t know. I’m not optimistic it’s going to happen any time soon.”

Rodriguez said Congress members’ inability to make decisions hurts the country.

“Nobody wins in the present situation,” Rodriguez said. “We need to decide who can stay and who can go, but just being in limbo, we all lose.”

Javier Huamani, treasurer for University Leadership Initiative, said as an undocumented student, he hopes the Obama administration will push for administrative reform in the near future.

“It’s the fact that people and families are being torn apart on a daily basis,” Huamani said. “That’s the main problem. People shouldn’t have to live in fear.”

According to Huamani, there are about 500 undocumented students on campus who deal with the constant fear he faces.

“I would like my parents to be eligible for it as well and be able to be protected so they don't have to live in fear,” Huamani said.

In a high-profile criminal case defending activist-journalist Barrett Brown, professors and students of the Civil Rights Clinic within the School of Law influenced the U.S. government’s decision on Wednesday to dismiss eleven of the twelve counts with which Brown was charged.

According to the arrest warrant, Brown was arrested in September of 2012 and was formally indicted three months later for “Threatening Communications and Counseling, Commanding, and Inducing the Publication of Restricted Information” — or trafficking data — after he copy-pasted a hyperlink from a private Internet chat room to a public one.

The hyperlink transferal, underpinning the entire online free speech case, was contested in a 43-page motion for dismissal of indictments. The brief was written by professors and four students of the Civil Rights Clinic, a group within the School of Law representing low-income clients in a range of civil rights matters including free speech. Just two days after filing the motion, the U.S. government voluntarily dropped all but one of the charges against Brown.

Ahmed Ghappour, clinical instructor for the law school, spearheaded the work done by the clinic on the case. Ghappour remains under gag order and confidentiality laws but said his team will continue to work to defend Brown’s rights.

“Mr. Brown is presumed innocent of all charges, and the defense anticipates challenging the legal and factual assumptions that underlie those charges,” Ghappour said.

The law students who worked on Brown’s case were supervised by attorneys but did a tremendous amount of work for the case, according to Ranjana Natarajan, clinical professor and director of the Civil Rights Clinic. Natarajan said she believes the four law students involved with the clinic have gained valuable skills through this case.

“I think this has been a great experience because the students study the impact of the First Amendment but also get to see how it’s applied in a context with high stakes,” said Natarajan. “They represent real clients and real matters.”

The future is still uncertain for Brown as the case remains open with one charge. Ward Farnsworth, dean of the law school, said the work the clinic has put in so far is a big point of pride.

“The Brown case has received national attention,” Farnsworth said. “Our students and clinicians have worked very hard on it, and we’re proud of what they accomplished.”

If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling by Thursday, the U.S. will default on its debt.

But what does this mean? It means that U.S. federal law says that there is an upper limit to the government’s debt beyond which the government has to stop borrowing. If the government can no longer borrow, it will not be able to pay off its obligations, and the bonds and notes the government issues will go into default.

Yes — the U.S. has already reached its current debt limit. The U.S. reached the current debt limit of $16.699 trillion this past May, but has had sufficient funds to continue to pay its bills. But according to the Obama administration, if the debt ceiling is not raised, and thus the U.S. government cannot borrow more funds, the government will run out of money on Oct. 17. At this point, it will no longer be able to pay it for its outlays, triggering a default.

How did the debt ceiling come about? Surprisingly, there is nothing about a debt ceiling in the Constitution. Rather, Congress and the President created it in 1917 with the passing of the Second Liberty Act. Since then, Congress has been continually raising the ceiling. In fact, it has done so 74 times in the last 51 years, according to the Congressional Research Service, making the ceiling almost arbitrary. But this year, a standoff in Congress has changed the situation. Congressional leaders have been using the threat of a government default as a bargaining tool.

But if it’s not in the Constitution, why on earth does the debt ceiling exist?

In the words of Dr. Daniel Hamermesh, the Sue Killam Professor in the Foundation of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin, “The debt ceiling is a self-inflicted wound that the legislature and the president tied their hands with. No other country does this... It has become a bargaining tool, although in a better world, we shouldn’t have this.”

So this year, what exactly is being bargained for or against? And why hasn’t Congress raised the ceiling already?

At the most basic level, the fight this year is over the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, a health care platform that House Republicans have tried to repeal or undermine at least 42 times, according to CNN. Now, members of the Tea Party, or right-wing Republicans, have decided to use the threat of a looming default to try to defund the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. This is no secret agenda. In fact, one of the most vocal advocates of this strategy, Senator Ted Cruz, is a junior U.S. Senator from Texas.

What’s at stake? What happens if the U.S. defaults on its debt?

Honestly, no one knows. A U.S. default is unprecedented. While other countries — such as Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Belize — have found themselves in sovereign default, none of these nations’ currencies serve as the world’s benchmark currency the way the U.S. dollar does. Usually, during economic turmoil, investors buy what they U.S. Treasury bonds, seeing them as one of the safest investments. In this scenario, when the U.S. government’s sovereignty itself is at risk, it’s unclear what the global investment community will do.

Will investors continue to buy U.S. bonds? Will they move to a portfolio of currencies? One person’s guess is as good as any other’s. In either situation, though, the confidence of the people buying U.S. debt — individuals, institutional investors, large banks, and foreign governments such as China and Japan — will be shattered. And this diminishing confidence level will be the most detrimental effect of the default, much larger than the practical considerations of the government not being able to pay its bills.

Hamermesh agreed, saying that this crisis is slowly destroying the perception of the U.S. as the most stable place to put money. Interest rates will go up as well, and the increased uncertainty will cause investors to move their money out of the country.

As for the effects on UT, they would trickle down effect would harm funding. In truth though, if such a thing did occur, the big picture implication would be so catastrophic that it’s even hard to speculate specific effects on UT. And the longer this fight goes on in Congress, the more detrimental the effects will be.

Recently, there have been a number of stories in the media about an avenue President Obama could take to sidestep the Congress and resolve this crisis. Section four of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. constitution says the following: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

To Hamermesh’s eyes, this passage provides the grounds for Obama telling Congress, “the debt should not be questioned, I’m not going to let it be questioned. Therefore we are going to keep on writing checks.” A move that would in effect “leave Ted Cruz stomping up and down and crying.” 

Other academics are not so certain that the solution is clear. Dr. Jack M Balkin, the Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, says on his blog that “the President does not have the unilateral power under Section four to disregard the debt ceiling.” 

Balkin believes that the President needs Congressional authorization to do so. If he sidesteps the Congress, it’s likely he could be tried for impeachment. The Obama administration has also officially stated that the President does not have the power to end the crisis under the 14th Amendment.

So where does this leave us?

Our country is on the brink of unprecedented economic collapse in large part due to partisan politics. And yet, behind all the bickering, there is a vague certainty that the U.S. cannot default; that the government won’t. This sentiment seems reminiscent of the one held by numerous large institutions during the mortgage crisis years ago. But the truth is, no country is too big to fail, not even the world’s largest superpower. And we, as a country, need to realize this in order to uphold our esteemed status in the global community.

Should we as students at UT care? In the words of Dr. Hamermesh, if we are citizens of the U.S., and if we want to continue to live in a country that is viewed as the best in the world, we should certainty care. And one of the first steps to caring is to educate ourselves on what’s going on.

Malik is a Plan II and business honors sophomore from Austin.

Public universities and their students could be particularly vulnerable to a potential U.S. debt ceiling crisis Thursday, which would have national and global implications.

The debt ceiling marks the maximum amount of debt the U.S. is allowed to hold before it can no longer borrow money to finance federal spending. The U.S. government is projected to hit this ceiling Oct. 17 if Congress does not vote to raise the debt ceiling limit. Should the amount of debt hit the ceiling, the U.S. could be forced to default on its debt, meaning that at some point it would no longer be able to fulfill its obligations to finance programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Congress may choose to avoid defaulting by raising the debt ceiling, which would increase the amount of money the U.S. is allowed to borrow.

Olivier Coibion, assistant professor of economics and monetary policy expert, said he expects spending on public universities to be affected quickly, leading to fewer services for students, higher tuition, reduced financial aid and increased student loan interest rates. He said these changes in spending could have long-term effects on students. 

“Students who finish school during an economic downturn tend to experience permanently worse careers and earn less income than those who graduate during booms,” Coibion said. “This type of economic event could have a direct and long-lived effect on students.”

Economics senior Crystal Luviano said it has been difficult to keep up with updates on the debt ceiling. She said she was unsure about how it could potentially affect students such as herself.

“But maybe if interest rates go up, student loans will be more unattainable and grants would decrease,” Luviano said. “The government wouldn’t have as many grants and scholarships to loan out to students.”

For one UT research associate, the government shutdown has already affected his research, and now the potential of hitting the debt ceiling continues to raise concerns. Joe Levy, geosciences research associate and lecturer, studies climate history by observing the ways glaciers and ice sheets have shaped the landscapes of Antarctica. His project was suspended when the government shut down. 

Levy said the federal agencies that support public universities’ research have not been growing at a fast enough rate to sustain current research growth. He said defaulting would not make the possibility of funding increases look promising.

“Fewer researchers at the University will be looking for students to help with research projects,” Levy said. “Students will have fewer opportunities for summer internships and labs. That’s a pity, because it’s great to be in a place where students are doing pretty cutting-edge research.”

Lewis Spellman, finance professor and capital markets expert, said even if the debt ceiling is raised, it would force the U.S. to contemplate where its values lie.

“If we blow past our credit limit and keeping on spending, in the short run, income is generated, but in the long run, the debt can’t be paid,” Spellman said. “It’s a sanity check to get us to understand the effect of short-term benefits of spending versus the long-term implications of having debt and to start thinking serious about these implications.”

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — With every phone call they make and every Web excursion they take, people are leaving a digital trail of revealing data that can be tracked by profit-seeking companies and terrorist-hunting government officials.

The revelations that the National Security Agency is perusing millions of U.S. customer phone records at Verizon Communications and snooping on the digital communications stored by nine major Internet services illustrate how aggressively personal data is being collected and analyzed.

Verizon is handing over so-called metadata, excerpts from millions of U.S. customer records, to the NSA under an order issued by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian. The report was confirmed Thursday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Former NSA employee William Binney told The Associated Press that he estimates the agency collects records on 3 billion phone calls each day.

The NSA and FBI appear to be looking even wider under a clandestine program code-named "PRISM" that was revealed in a story posted late Thursday by The Washington Post. PRISM gives the U.S. government access to email, documents, audio, video, photographs and other data belonging to foreigners on foreign soil who are under investigation, according to The Washington Post. The newspaper said it reviewed a confidential roster of companies and services participating in PRISM. The companies included AOL Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Skype, YouTube and Paltalk.

In statements, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo said they only provide the government with user data required under the law. (Google runs YouTube and Microsoft owns Skype.) AOL and Paltalk didn't immediately respond to inquiries from The Associated Press.

The NSA isn't getting customer names or the content of phone conversations under the Verizon court order, but that doesn't mean the information can't be tied to other data coming in through the PRISM program to look into people's lives, according to experts.

Like pieces of a puzzle, the bits and bytes left behind from people's electronic interactions can be cobbled together to draw conclusions about their habits, friendships and preferences using data-mining formulas and increasingly powerful computers.

It's all part of a phenomenon known as "Big Data," a catchphrase increasingly used to describe the science of analyzing the vast amount of information collected through mobile devices, Web browsers and check-out stands. Analysts use powerful computers to detect trends and create digital dossiers about people.

The Obama administration and lawmakers privy to the NSA's surveillance aren't saying anything about the collection of the Verizon customers' records beyond that it's in the interest of national security. The sweeping court order covers the Verizon records of every mobile and landline phone call from April 25 through July 19, according to The Guardian.

It's likely the Verizon phone records are being matched with an even broader set of data, said Forrester Research analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo.

"My sense is they are looking for network patterns," she said. "They are looking for who is connected to whom and whether they can put any timelines together. They are also probably trying to identify locations where people are calling from."

Under the court order, the Verizon records include the duration of every call but not the locations of mobile calls.

The location information is particularly valuable for cloak-and-dagger operations like the one the NSA is running, said Cindy Cohn, a legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group that has been fighting the government's collection of personal phone records since 2006. The foundation is currently suing over the government's collection of U.S. citizens' communications in a case that dates back to the administration of President George W. Bush.

"It's incredibly invasive," Cohn said. "This is a consequence of the fact that we have so many third parties that have accumulated significant information about our everyday lives."

It's such a rich vein of information that U.S. companies and other organizations now spend more than $2 billion each year to obtain third-party data about individuals, according to Forrester Research. The data helps businesses target potential customers. Much of this information is sold by so-called data brokers such as Acxiom Corp., a Little Rock, Ark., company that maintains extensive files about the online and offline activities of more than 500 million consumers worldwide.

The digital floodgates have opened during the past decade as the convenience and allure of the Internet —and sleek smartphones— have made it easier and more enjoyable for people to stay connected wherever they go.

"I don't think there has been a sea change in analytical methods as much as there has been a change in the volume, velocity and variety of information and the computing power to process it all," said Gartner analyst Douglas Laney.

In a sign of the NSA's determination to vacuum up as much data as possible, the agency has built a data center in Bluffdale, Utah that is five times larger than the U.S. Capitol —all to sift through Big Data. The $2 billion center has fed perceptions that some factions of the U.S. government are determined to build a database of all phone calls, Internet searches and emails under the guise of national security. The Washington Post's disclosure that both the NSA and FBI have the ability to burrow into computers of major Internet services will likely heighten fears that U.S. government's Big Data is creating something akin to the ever-watchful Big Brother in George Orwell's "1984" novel.

"The fact that the government can tell all the phone carriers and Internet service providers to hand over all this data sort of gives them carte blanche to build profiles of people they are targeting in a very different way than any company can," Khatibloo said.

In most instances, Internet companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo are taking what they learn from search requests, clicks on "like" buttons, Web surfing activity and location tracking on mobile devices to figure out what their users like and divine where they are. It's all in aid of showing users ads about products likely to pique their interest at the right time. The companies defend this kind of data mining as a consumer benefit.

Google is trying to take things a step further. It is honing its data analysis and search formulas in an attempt to anticipate what an individual might be wondering about or wanting.

Other Internet companies also use Big Data to improve their services. Video subscription service Netflix takes what it learns from each viewer's preferences to recommend movies and TV shows. Amazon.com Inc. does something similar when it highlights specific products to different shoppers visiting its site.

The federal government has the potential to know even more about people because it controls the world's biggest data bank, said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor who recently stepped down as the Federal Trade Commission's consumer protection director.

Before leaving the FTC last year, Vladeck opened an inquiry into the practices of Acxiom and other data brokers because he feared that information was being misinterpreted in ways that unfairly stereotyped people. For instance, someone might be classified as a potential health risk just because he or she bought products linked to increased chance of heart attack. The FTC inquiry into data brokers is still open.

"We had real concerns about the reliability of the data and unfair treatment by algorithm," Vladeck said.

Vladeck stressed he had no reason to believe that the NSA is misinterpreting the data it collects about people. He finds some comfort in The Guardian report that said the Verizon order had been signed by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Judge Ronald Vinson.

The NSA "differs from a commercial enterprise in the sense that there are checks in the judicial system and in Congress," Vladeck said. "If you believe in the way our government is supposed to work, then you should have some faith that those checks are meaningful. If you are skeptical about government, then you probably don't think that kind of oversight means anything."

On Nov. 19, UT students and Austin community members marched through campus chanting, “Not another nickel, not another dime, no more money for Israel’s crimes.” (A separate protest with many of the same protesters took place on Nov. 17 in downtown Austin.) Speakers, including UT journalism professor Robert Jensen and Saif Kazim, the president of UT’s Society for Islamic Awareness, explained the current crisis in Gaza and the necessity for a domestic campaign to end U.S. funding of the Israeli occupation, bombardment and economic suffocation of the Palestinian people. The Nov. 19 march intended to show UT students that the campaign could begin here on campus.   

Public action is necessary because of the United States government’s complicity in the occupation. Both the protest on campus and downtown saw a broad base of supporters come out in opposition to Israeli occupation, which was deemed illegal by United Nations Resolution 242 and the International Court of Justice ruling in 2004. These two protests are following a global outcry against the newest act of Israeli aggression.

UT students must understand that not only their federal government, but also their University is complicit in Israeli war crimes. UT’s investment company, University of Texas Investment Management Company (UTIMCO), invests in the industry built around the Israeli occupation of Palestine. UTIMCO profits from investments in companies like United Technologies, which produces UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for the Israel Defense Force. These UTIMCO investments follow the U.S. government’s lead, which, according to Amnesty International, sells attack aircraft and missiles to Israel.

Social movements have traditionally flourished on college campuses. In April 1986, 42 UT students protesting apartheid refused to surrender a shanty they had constructed on the West Mall and were arrested by UT police. The following Friday, 182 students were arrested during a successive, much larger West Mall rally in protest of apartheid in South Africa at that time. The protesting students had a specific demand: They wanted the University to divest, or strip itself of its financial interests, in South Africa. Today, UT students again have the power to shape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Within hours of Israel’s launching Operation Pillar of Defense two weeks ago, President Obama voiced his support for Israel’s right to self-defense — a claim that ignores Israel’s disproportionate use of resources and force. Obama’s position represents only a fraction of the U.S. government’s pro-Israeli foreign policy, which provides Israel with $3 billion a year in foreign aid. Arguably, the U.S. policy violates the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which declared it illegal for the U.S. government to fund foreign governments that are consistent human rights violators.

Israel has faced a long history of criticism by various human rights organizations and official bodies of the United Nations.

In 2000, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reported “demolition of houses and closure of the Palestinian territories” and the “death of 127 civilians, including many children,” which constitute “war crimes.” In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the wall built in the Occupied Territories breaches international humanitarian law by “imposing restrictions on the freedom of the inhabitants” and limiting “access to health services, educational establishments and primary sources of water.” An Amnesty International report titled “Operation Cast Lead: 22 Days of Death and Destruction” reports that Israeli F-16 combat aircraft “targeted and destroyed civilian homes … often while they slept” and that Israeli Hellfire missiles killed “children playing on the roofs of their homes or in the street and other civilians going about their daily business ... in broad daylight.” Though Israel’s countless war crimes have been well-documented, the U.S. government maintains its generous $3 billion a year in foreign aid to Israel.

The U.S. government’s recent acts of unwavering, bipartisan support of Israel demonstrate the normalization of endorsing Israel’s actions in our political system. We cannot depend on our political system to change current U.S. foreign policy towards Israel. Change must come first from social movements.

Challenging U.S. policy must begin on this campus with a call for the University to divest its interests in Israel. The Nov. 19 protest on the West Mall, like the one decades before, reminded University decision-makers that UT students can hold the University accountable for its actions. What unified the speakers and marchers was an understanding that UT students can effect changes. Join the movement to end U.S. support of Israel. Rather than being spectators to U.S.-endorsed occupation, we can start the path to peace here.

Noriega is a journalism sophomore from Irving and Orta is a Latin American Studies and international relations senior from Dallas.

In recent weeks, anti-American fury has ravaged the Middle East. Following a film mocking the Prophet Mohammad, protesters vented their anger against the United States, blaming it for what they consider an attack on Islam and Muslims. This series of violent and non-violent events, ranging from peaceful demonstrations to attacks against embassies and other American institutions, has triggered debates nationally as well as globally. The issues being discussed are  freedom of speech, the “tolerability” of Islam and religions in general, the danger of religious political groups to national and international security, the feasibility of the democratic movement following the Arab Spring, and the reliability of the U.S. foreign policy in this region.

The majority of people in the Middle East connect the U.S. government and all 300 million Americans with the action of the one individual responsible for the making and posting of the film.

Muslims within the United States have reacted in a different way to this issue. Dedicated Muslim community organizations have initiated informational sessions about Islam and its message of peace; a number of mosques have opened their doors to answer questions about Islam. Reactions and actions of Muslims in the U.S. have been shaped by the environment those Muslims live in. They have engaged in civic communication with respect to the law and aimed at educating others about a different perspective.

As a North African woman, having the chance and the privilege of living and studying in three different continents and observing objectively such events, I wondered: What makes two persons who have a very close set of religious beliefs and values, react extremely in different ways toward something they both consider offensive to their religion?

I believe that the reason for the different reactions is a misconception and misunderstanding in what I will call the “Middle Eastern mind” of the legal and moral authority of the U.S. government in limiting the exercise of free speech.

An average Middle-Eastern citizen has never known democracy, never exercised free speech and has always lived under dictatorship. In fact, he has only known an omnipresent government that is driven by censorship; a sort of what I will call “God Government” that has the extent of power up to controlling every aspect of a citizen’s life, including his personal life. Combining all these factors together, it is understandable how a considerable number of people in the Middle East were led  to believe that it is of the U.S. government’s responsibility to prevent such a movie from appearing and, by failing in doing so, that government — in these people’s thinking — became an accomplice of the movie’s content.

Unfortunately, the average Middle-Easterner fails in understanding that American citizens protected by the First Amendment cannot be censored by the U.S. government. But, what has added insult to injury is that political leaders in the Middle East themselves have also promulgated misinformation  about this particular issue. These leaders have declared their intentions either to sue the movie producer or to ask the U.S. government to censor the movie and any type of anti-Islam work.

Being aware of the number of anti-Islam videos that are freely and easily accessible on the net, I wonder where we are heading — if  every video or book or painting sparks violent expressions of rage and political turmoil. In the aftermath of these events, I believe deepened security around U.S. facilities and diplomacy  won’t be enough to address the issue. The responsibility is shared by officials and members of civic society in both countries to create more dialogue between the United States and Middle East and North African (MENA) countries, which could lead to a better understanding of our differences.

Despite all those differences, I do believe we have by far more in common. Educating future generations in the MENA region about the American system and the basic fundamentals with regard to the First Amendment will induce a more peaceful and educated way of managing such sensitive issues. This objective should figure now as a top element in the agenda of all educational, cultural, social and political partnerships involving people from the MENA region with American institutions.

From my limited experience in explaining to other Middle Easterners the differences between our two systems, as well as how real people with extremely different sets of belief can coexist thanks to the laws and institutions, I concluded that violence is the voice and manifest of misinformation and miscommunication. Getting to know each other better through better communication is a light to modern salvation.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on Sept. 21 that Tunisia should not be discouraged by the latest violent actions committed by extremists. In the same sense, it is our responsibility as Tunisians and North-Africans to contribute to the process of education, dialogue and exchange with the world to build our democratic and stable institutions, thus to create a prosperous and healthy environment.

In the end, debates about the issues at hand could be used as a platform to export all ideas regarding liberty and freedom to those countries.

Hamdi is an engineering graduate student from Gafsa, Tunisia.

Photo Credit: Colin Zelinski | Daily Texan Staff

More than a decade after the world-changing 9/11 attacks, the UT community continues to see the devastation of that day seriously affect its campus, down to the classes the University offers.

With the horror and destruction of 9/11 also came analyses by Americans of how to combat a new threat. Questions were asked, studies conducted and conclusions drawn. Thomas Palaima, classics professor and Middle Eastern studies expert, said it was discovered that the U.S. government, a government that spends more money on military defense than any other nation in the world, was ill-equipped to deal with conflicts in the Middle East.

“One of the problems with 9/11 was that one found out that we did not even have, even in the specialized areas of the government and the military, the number of experts in Middle Eastern culture and languages that we should,” Palaima said.

He said in response to the lack of qualified military personnel, UT and many other universities across the country soon began to adjust their curricula, increasing the size and strength of their Middle Eastern studies programs. He said the increased focus on the Middle East did not spill over to interest in other cultural studies programs.

“It would be good if we applied the same concern across the board in other areas, and I just don’t see that,” Palaima said.

Palaima said he believes the focus on Middle Eastern studies has actually decreased the overall size of ethnic studies programs nationwide, as total resources have shifted and ultimately decreased. Should the U.S. come into conflict with certain other parts of the world, Palaima said the U.S. could end up in a situation similar to that after 9/11, with a lack of expert personnel and a subsequent unbalanced shift in academics.

Kristen Brustad, department chair of Middle Eastern studies and associate professor of Arabic, said she has seen growth in her department because of 9/11.

“The number of Arabic majors went up fairly dramatically over these last ten years,” she said. “We now have the largest graduate program in the country in terms of Arabic studies. It used to be only the large universities had an Arabic program, but now, it is small colleges and community colleges as well, and now a number of our graduates are teaching in those schools.”

According to statistics from UT’s office of institutional research, the number of students enrolled in the Middle Eastern studies department at UT increased by 97.67 percent, when comparing 2002 fall enrollment with fall enrollment from 2011. That included a 52 percent increase in the number of undergraduates, bringing the number of students from 25 to 38. There was an 80 percent increase in the number of students pursuing a master’s degree, from 10 to 18. And there was a 262.5 percent increase in the number of Ph.D. candidates, from 8 to 29.

The same statistics for the departments of Slavic and Eurasian studies and Spanish and Portuguese show a 37.04 percent decline, from 27 to 17, and a 40 percent decline, from 440 to 264, in total Spanish and Portuguese enrollment respectively.

Palaima said a replicate situation took place in the U.S. following the Cold War, where Russian studies were escalated as U.S.-Soviet conflict grew.

“It is a very similar situation,” Palaima said.

Brustad said, luckily, one thing that has not seemed to change at UT is the tolerant atmosphere for Middle Eastern students.

“Recently, I would say not at UT, but at the climate at large, I hear a lot more negative rhetoric in the public discourse at large,” Brustad said. “Former students of mine from before I came to UT, where I taught before, who now work for the government have even been attacked because they are Muslim or Arabic.”

Mai Khattab, a member of UT’s Arab student association, said she has seen that acceptance while at UT for the last two years.

“For us, as Arabs here at UT, we are treated just like any other group,” Khattab said. “We have never had anyone be offensive and treat us badly or anything.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh speaks Thursday evening at the 2012 Julius and Suzan Glickman Lecture. Hersh, well known for his criticism of the U.S. government, spoke about the state of the global war on terrorism.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

Today’s war on terrorism originated from an idea pushed by a president that terrified his country, said award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh.

Hersh, contributor for The New Yorker and Pulitzer Prize winner, visited campus Thursday evening to give a progress report on the state of the global war on terrorism as this year’s speaker for the 2012 Julius and Suzan Glickman Lecture.

“When other countries like Spain, England and India were attacked by terrorists, they responded using their justice system instead of military action,” he said. “We should’ve done the same, but we got caught up in Bush’s unjustified idea of what was going on.”

Best known for his investigative journalism, Hersh received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his exposure of the My Lai Massacre, in which the U.S. government covered up the killing of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians at the hands of American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Stephen Sonnenberg, adjunct professor for the University’s Humanities Institute, said few individuals have the courage and conscious to expose a government that is acting against its society’s culture.

“It takes a very special person to uncover what Seymour did,” Sonnenberg said. “Optimism is an evolutionary phenomenon, and his work pushed for it.”

Summarizing the United States’ current relationship with the Middle East, Hersh said the Obama administration hopes to get out of Afghanistan before being “the last to die,” and Pakistan is under control. He said Syria is “an ugly picture,” and Iran and the U.S. want to avoid a preemptive Israeli attack against Iran.

“The Israelis have pulled down our pants,” he said. “We are just playing checkers while they are playing poker.”

Hersh is known for criticizing the U.S. government in his books on the war on terrorism. The United States should not be deemed a reflection of presidential decisions that were not fully thought out, Hersh said.

“We are not morally bankrupt,” he said. “We just have lousy leadership.”

Hersh praised today’s youth and said the Arab Spring was proof that younger individuals are learning that the key to bringing down an oppressor is in organizing themselves against it, even if it’s through Facebook and Twitter.

A governmental crackdown on the First Amendment through laws being passed in Congress will leave society on the streets, but the internet’s impact on the industry already has everyone running around, he said.

Hersh’s uncanny ability to find factual information not presented by the government or the press demonstrated society’s misguidedness, said Julius Glickman, UT alumnus and founder of the lecture series.

“His knowledge is proof that we aren’t getting as many of the facts as we need to make the right decisions,” Glickman said. “We need 10,000 more journalists like him.”